Natural History for Historians?

Page from Martin H. Moynihan's field notes on Cyanerpes, or Honeycreepers, Panama, 1958. Smithsonian Institution Archives,

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Last month I had the pleasure of reviewing Briony Penn’s The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan (Rocky Mountain Books, 2015) for BC Studies. Cowan (1910-2010) was a BC biologist and conservationist, whose work at the Royal BC Museum and later as a prolific professor of Zoology at UBC, came to shape the profession of wildlife ecology and the development of conservationist thought in the province.

Penn’s detailed and engaging book is as much a biography of Cowan as a tribute to the BC landscapes and animal species he was fascinated by, many of them since lost to a century of destructive development. By pairing key moments in Cowan’s life with the places and species that shaped his career and his thinking as a scientist, Penn captures the wonder that Cowan felt for the natural world and the “insatiable appetite” for local knowledge (80) that he held throughout his life. Reading about Cowan and the changing environments he documented as “naturalist-collector” and later wildlife scientist prompted me to think about the degree to which this kind of detailed ecological knowledge informs my own work, and work in my field.

As environmental historians we rely primarily on the archival records; through these, many of us construct deep histories of place. One of the biggest indicators of historical change in the places we study is changing biodiversity: the abundance, range, and composition of plant and animal species in a particular area. And yet only a few of us—in Canada, Kirsten Greer, Sara Spike, and Joanna Dean come to mind, though certainly there are others—can tell the difference between a bunchberry and a foamflower, a Townsend’s warbler and an ovenbird. The practice of natural history, as Penn points out, has fallen almost completely out of favour, symptomatic of a broader decline of knowledge about the natural world.

Few of us can expect to become amateur botanists or biologists in our spare time, but for the places and processes we devote our attention to as environmental historians, a working knowledge of the plant and animal species that define the region or locality would only enhance our analyses of social and environmental change.

As for my own skills as a natural historian, I’m a little rusty. I first encountered the idea of natural history as an undergraduate in Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria in the 1990s. A research internship with the Clayoquot Biosphere Project—now the Clayoquot Biosphere Trust—saw me and another student flown in twice a year by seaplane from Tofino to a research station on remote Clayoquot Lake. There we spent two weeks at a time on our own in the wilds of Clayoquot Sound—green undergraduates charged with the task of observing and recording what we saw around us. Each morning and afternoon we would set out by canoe to circumnavigate the lake, recording sightings of mergansers and buffleheads, measuring lake levels, weather, and water temperature. The introduction to hip-waders and Moleskine field notebooks was intoxicating (save the occasional overturning of the canoe in the February-chilled waters of the Clayoquot River—I had never before paddled a canoe). This kind of unsupervised undergraduate research would never fly in universities today; I’m astounded it did then. But it was fantastic, life-changing experience, this freedom and responsibility we were given. I haven’t paid this kind of detailed attention to place ever since.

Perhaps I’m just romanticizing lost youth, but there was a deep satisfaction to this kind of systematic observation of place. The Oxford English Dictionary defines natural history as “the scientific study of animals or plants, especially as concerned with observation rather than experiment, and presented in popular rather than academic form.” The practice reached its peak in the late-nineteenth century with the rise of scientific biology, but as Penn shows, it continued well into the twentieth century with the formation of natural history societies and the training of young naturalists. The traditions of natural history, furthermore, influenced the science of biology and of ecology in particular. And it persists to a degree in the endurance of local natural history organizations and the proliferation of things like amateur birding clubs.

But the more generalized loss of the naturalist’s (or the farmer’s, or the fisher’s) detailed ecological knowledge of place has been well-documented as a product—and an indicator—of modernity. It appears perhaps most noisily in the reams of parenting literature that lament children’s shrinking experience in and knowledge of the natural world. While much of this literature is based more in a vague feeling of loss than in substantiated research, it speaks at some level to something real.

J.B. MacKinnon provides some useful tools for thinking about our changing ecological knowledge in his excellent book, The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be (Random House, 2013). In it, he explores the concept of “shifting baselines”: the idea that each generation views their surroundings as the “normal state” of nature, and measures declines against that baseline, resulting in what MacKinnon describes as a “gradual accommodation of… creeping disappearance.” This “adapt-and-forget” pattern is characteristic of modern life, he argues, and it explains why it is so difficult for us to imagine the sheer biomass of the pre-modern world: the seemingly endless march of a herd of bison, the early-European descriptions of New World seas and rivers “teaming with life.”[1]

I’m not proposing (for myself or anyone else) the kind of detailed, systematic natural history studies of the Clayoquot Biosphere Project, but rather that more of us, as environmental historians, become conversant with not just the environmental history, but the ecological history of the places we study, and their changing biodiversity over time. What this may look like, I’m not sure. Perhaps it means we read and interview more ecologists and biologists as part of our research. Perhaps more of us turn to biodiversity as a subject of research in itself. We may find that we become, through these practices, not only documenters of the irretrievable—landscapes transformed, resources consumed, lives altered—but also chroniclers of the surprising turn-abouts that ecological change sometimes brings: the temporary banquet, and biodiversity boom, of the clearcut; the unlikely habitat potential of an abandoned industrial building. Buffing up our natural history skills may provide us with greater insights into the “shifting baselines” of historical ecology, and change the nature of the histories we write.

[1] J.B. MacKinnon, The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be (New York: Random House, 2013), 18, 20.

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Jennifer Bonnell

Associate Professor at York University
Jennifer Bonnell is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at York University. She is the author of Reclaiming the Don: An Environmental History of Toronto's Don River Valley (University of Toronto Press, 2014) and Stewards of Splendour: A History of Wildlife and People in British Columbia (Royal BC Museum, 2023). She is co-editor with Sean Kheraj of Traces of the Animal Past: Methodological Challenges in Animal History (University of Calgary Press, 2022) and with Marcel Fortin of Historical GIS Research in Canada (University of Calgary Press, 2014). She is currently working on an environmental history of beekeeping and environmental change in the Great Lakes Region in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


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